Archive | October, 2013

The Ring (2002)

31 Oct

Naomi-Watts-as-investigative-reporter-Rachel-Keller-watching-the-mysterious-videotape-in-Dreamworks-The-Ring-2002-2

Smith’s Verdict: ***1/2

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

“Have you heard about this videotape that kills you when you watch it?”

Yes, “The Ring” is about a VHS tape that brings certain death to those who view it. After you’ve been subjected to many disturbing images, the telephone rings. When you answer it, you’re told you have seven days to live.

There are many horror films in which so much disturbing, unnerving imagery has been subjected to us and when it’s over, we’re all relieved to be in the real world again, alive and well. But “The Ring” actually suggests that the mere act of watching this weirdness can kill you. Already, I like this horror film for that concept.

“The Ring,” based on the Japanese horror film “Ringu,” is one of the scariest movies I’ve ever seen. It has an atmosphere that can hardly find comparison; it’s spooky in all the right parts; it takes you on an intriguing mystery that answers some questions but not all, so that you can fill in some of the blanks yourself after you’ve seen it; and it has a great share of effectively scary moments that are tense and very frightening.

After the cursed tape has taken the life of a teenage girl (in a very creepy prologue) seven days after she’s watched it, the late girl’s aunt, reporter Rachel Keller (Naomi Watts), decides to look further into her reasons for dying. After hearing about the tape from high-school gossip and discovering that the girl’s three friends have died the same night that she did (presumably seeing the tape as well), Rachel happens upon the tape and decides to watch it, only to seal her doom.

With seven days and counting (as titles inform us of the countdown), Rachel believes that something supernatural is afoot here and decides to bring in her ex-boyfriend Noah (Martin Henderson), a video geek, to help figure this out. Together, they decide to view the images as a series of clues leading to the tape’s origins and set out to solve the puzzle before seven days are up. Things get even worse when Rachel’s eight-year-old son, Aidan (David Dorfman), watches the tape as well, sealing his fate as well.

The plot thickens as Rachel and Noah are brought to research the life of a woman whose daughter may be connected to the surrealism of it all, and are also brought to the place it originated where they find more answers. The fun thing about “The Ring” is that with all the images that stay in your head no matter how hard to try to forget about them (it’s an effectively executed, creepy show of images on that tape), you find yourself trying to figure out all this as the characters are. There’s hardly an instant when you’re ahead of the characters in solving this puzzle. And it’s fascinating to watch each new development continue to be thrown into the mix, while it’s also creepy at the same time because it’s more unnerving as the mystery grows and comes full-circle.

“The Ring” is great to look at. With nifty camerawork, creepy visuals, and an effectively grim tone, this is a very well-made ghost story. And somehow, that it takes place in Seattle which is mostly dark and gloomy makes it all the more effective.

Critics are rather split about the twist-ending, but I didn’t have a problem with it. Sure, it brings more answers that I would have liked to have come up with myself, but on the other hand, it is quite intriguing to see some version of a possible answer. And let’s face it—it’s here to give us the “money-scare,” the “money-shot” that every horror film must have in order to give audiences nightmares for days, if not weeks. “The Ring” has a hell of a good scare at that point. If everything else was a whimper, this ending was a scream. And I liked that the ending came an unexpected time, when it seemed as if everything was going to be all right.

And once again, there are as many questions that arise as there are answers that are revealed. I didn’t mind so much, because I was caught up in this mystery and wanted a few things to figure out for myself.

Naomi Watts makes for an appealing heroine—not only beautiful, but also resourceful and bright and caring for those around her. I also liked that it’s a reporter that is the protagonist of this ghost story, because she has that gut feeling to go out and investigate the strangeness that’s going on here. (Though, whether or not she actually does write this story for the Seattle Post is open to wonder.) Martin Henderson is good as her partner, and he and Watts share convincing chemistry as their relationship mends through this experience (of course). Brian Cox has a memorably creepy cameo appearance as a farmer that knows too much and is hesitant to tell.

Not everything about “The Ring” works, however. My main problem with the film is the character of Aidan. One thing I neglected to mention is that Aidan is actually psychic. He can see the same kind of surreal imagery that Rachel is trying to figure out. The problem I have with this kid is that he’s just too creepy, and with no emotional involvement to balance anything out. This kid doesn’t act like a regular kid—he acts like a carbon copy of the kid in “The Sixth Sense.” There’s never a sense that he cares for anything in the slightest; so why should I care if the kid lives?

And there are some little things that bugged me a bit, but they’re mostly nitpicks, such as why is the ghost able to call via telephone and how the lid of a well can create a ring that can be seen from inside? But I guess this is the kind of film where you don’t ask such questions and just be wrapped in the atmosphere and mystery of “The Ring.” There are many standout moments that unnerve, others that frighten, and others that inspire. That is why this is one of the most effective supernatural horror films I’ve ever seen.

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Short Term 12 (2013)

15 Oct

Short Term 12 Brie Larson and Keith Stanfield

Smith’s Verdict: ***1/2

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

OK, so you have this setup: foster care, the people involved, emotional attachments proceed. Describing the independent film “Short Term 12” like that would make it sound like a overly sappy and sentimental melodrama with enough manipulation to make you puke when you realize you’re not crying (and not going to either). But “Short Term 12” is a lot better than that. It’s a well-written, deeply effective film that takes a close, realistic look at the lives of those who live in a children’s group home and those who work there as caretakers. These are complicated people that are brought to life with good writing and convincing acting.

“Short Term 12” is mostly centered around the character of Grace, who works as a caretaker at a foster-care “short term” institution, acting as a surrogate big-sister to troubled kids who live there. She’s played in a star-making performance by Brie Larson. Larson has been good in supporting roles before (and has appeared in two indie films recently: “The Spectacular Now” and “Don Jon”); in this leading role, she owns it with her best work that is sure to gain a lot of attention. She delivers an honest, successful portrayal of a person who seems to have everything under control on the outside and is insecure and unsure on the inside. And that’s what Grace is like—she seems to have it together when she’s around people at work and has a no-nonsense personality to assist, but life outside work is a confusing mess as things in her life spiral out of control in ways she didn’t expect.

“Short Term 12” is an intriguing character-study in that we know very little about Grace to begin with, and then events from her past are revealed as the story continues. Events happen and we know more about her through these events, in the way she responds to them. We understand why she behaves certain ways (and at one point, it’s revealed that she may actually be mentally unstable) and grow more and more interested in her story as it’s revealed in small doses, not with overwrought exposition but with realistic talk. Credit for that not only goes to Larson, but also to writer/director Destin Cretton, who remade (and expanded) this feature film from his earlier short film in 2008. And I should also give credit for the crafting of the film too. It’s done in handheld camera footage, which I usually can’t stand in films anymore, but it works here because it gives the film a more “you-are-there” feel. This way, we feel like we know these people and are with them throughout the film, like any great character-driven film.

And something else “Short Term 12” gets right is that it’s one of the truest portrayals of troubled teenagers you’ll ever come across. Their issues are as serious as the issues the caretakers are going through—and while we’re on that subject, it’s also interesting in how a standoffish newcomer to the home, Jayden (well-played by Kaitlyn Dever), has problems that mirror that of Grace’s. That gives Grace all the more reason to ultimately break down as well as try to help her. It gives a very interesting dynamic in that sense.

I don’t want to make “Short Term 12” sound entirely depressing, because it does have its comic-relief moments, such as the amiable stories that Grace’s lover/co-worker Mason (John Gallagher Jr.) loves to tell to his co-workers, including newcomer therapist Nate (Rami Malek). And the friendship that the workers share is convincing and easygoing. Other amusing moments come from the kids, particularly wisecracking Luis (Kevin Hernandez) and odd Sammy (Alex Calloway). Sometimes, you need to laugh or hassle your fellow “inmates” and supervisors in order to further go along the road to recovery, given these kids’ pasts.

Even when there are some rough character choices in the final act, and Grace does perform a most extreme action that really makes you question her mental state, “Short Term 12” finds a way to recover. This is a film that I will not forget anytime soon. The performances are on-target, the script is solid, the execution is well-handled, and hopefully, this will turn out to be a deserving career breakthrough for Brie Larson, for her brilliant performance. I look forward to seeing her in more leading roles. And I also look forward to Destin Cretton’s next film.

War Eagle, Arkansas (revised review)

4 Oct

Luke Grimes and Dan McCabe in

Smith’s Verdict: ****

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

This is a “revised” review of “War Eagle, Arkansas.” When I first watched and reviewed this film three years ago, I saw it as the great film it was and wrote a very favorable review. It was a film I would definitely want to see again. And surely enough, I did. I rented this film several times at the local video store in my Northeast-Arkansas hometown until I ultimately bought it there for $10.75. It was well worth the cash. The reason I’m writing a new review of it is because I feel there’s more I can say about it now, especially considering that it’s now one of my absolute personal favorite movies.

I love this film. I mean, I really love this film. It’s not just that it’s a well-executed, well-acted, and very credible independent film, but there’s also its sense of place (an idyllic rural community that hits very close to home), the excellent characterizations (believable, effectively-realized characters all around; they remind me of people I know/knew), and its courage to tell a story that is emotionally accurate even if it goes against what most audiences would like to see (the resolution is melancholy and yet hopeful, with a hint of satisfaction nonetheless). All of those elements speak to me in ways I didn’t expect.

The film is somewhat based on the true-life friendship of producer Vincent Insalaco’s son, Vincent III, and wheelchair-bound Tim Ballany. A similar friendship is imagined in the film, with Enoch Cass (played by Luke Grimes) and Samuel “Wheels” Macon (Dan McCabe) in the small town of War Eagle (said to be “at the top of a plateau in the Ozark Mountains”).

Enoch and Wheels are both outcasts—Enoch, because despite him being a gifted baseball player with a chance at a university sports scholarship, he has a terrible stutter that doesn’t allow him to carry out a full sentence half the time, and that also makes him somewhat insecure; and Wheels, not only because he’s confined to a wheelchair due to cerebral palsy, but because he is a witty loudmouth who rarely shuts up. They’ve been friends their whole lives, they hang out around town every day, and despite their disabilities, they are able to create a full personality all their own in a way that a long-running friendship can create.

The film takes place in the summer after Enoch and Wheels have finished high school, and is essentially a slice-of-life drama simply about certain events in this time period surrounding this central relationship. Things happen because they are supposed to do happen—they simply are, and it’s more about how these things happen. It’s told episodically, as it shows Enoch preparing to pitch for the All-Star baseball game in Fayetteville, working up the courage (and speech) to ask a girl he likes out on a date, and wondering about his life in his hometown and what life could be like elsewhere.

These are all very relatable issues. Particularly for me, speaking as someone who has lived in a small town most of his life (and also in Arkansas, believe it or not), there were many times when I would feel tired of the all-too-familiarities and think of moving outward to a new life in a new surrounding. But there would always be at least something in that town that always made it feel like home—it was my home, and the people in it made it worth staying for a little while longer. And that’s Enoch’s deal here—his best friend Wheels, and also his family, are important to him, despite his wishes of leaving.

Even if you haven’t felt that way in your life, you realize how accurately it is portrayed in this film. In the case of Enoch wanting to ask out a local girl, Abby (Misti Traya), every guy has felt this way before. Working up the courage to ask her out, not knowing what the response will be, uncertain of what will happen if she actually says yes, and so on. There are embarrassing moments that ring true, one of which is very painful—it’s when Enoch meets Abby and her friends and tries to ask her out, but because of his stutter and inability to even let out the first word, her friends can’t help but giggle and laugh at him until Enoch is humiliated and leaves. Eventually, he does score a date with Abby but has to bring Wheels along just in case.

But there are two problems with this new relationship between Enoch and Abby. One is that Wheels is now the odd man out and feels lonely without Enoch (he also gets the feeling that Abby is not right for Enoch after all), and the other is that it gives Wheels time to think about what not only his relationship with Abby does but also what their own relationship does, which is to keep Enoch in a working-class town when he should be taking his chance at a baseball scholarship in Tennessee. This leads to a confrontation in which Wheels, after trying to keep everything bottled up inside, finally lets out to Enoch that he needs to wake up and know what he has to do.

It all manages to fit around a decision that Enoch must ultimately make—either stay in his hometown or leave to play baseball for a Tennessee university. The result may not be obvious to most people, but what’s really important about this resolution is why and how it had to happen, and it becomes even more clear the more times you watch this film (or at least, for me, anyway). Whether you’re satisfied with it or not, it’s hard to deny that it feels very true to life.

What also makes the film silently tragic is the character of Wheels. This is a person that can never be independent and always needs someone to help him, whether it’s his mother or Enoch. So while Enoch has a chance of getting out of this hometown he’s lived in his whole life with Wheels, Wheels is going to feel more and more imprisoned by the community he’s been way too familiar with. You feel for him, because amidst all the wit and profane talk he spews, you understand more of the isolation that he feels and can’t help but sympathize with him.

The film is called “War Eagle, Arkansas,” and surely enough, the town itself feels like a character in the film. A great deal of atmosphere is noticed all throughout as you get a good sense of the environment these characters live their lives in. Particularly, there’s the local diner, the practice baseball field, the farm Enoch lives on with his grandfather and mother, the open fields, the main street, and the overlook near the “War Eagle” sign, where Enoch and Wheels sometimes sit and contemplate. There’s enough atmosphere here that you can understand why Enoch does in fact like this place and why Wheels is imprisoned by it.

I should mention the supporting characters, because they are terrific. For instance, there’s Pop (Brian Dennehy), Enoch’s grandfather and baseball coach, who is crusty and tough with his grandson, and has reasons for being so. This is not a Wilford Brimley type of character that has all the answers and kindly puts them in ways that those in need of help can understand, and he is not a warm presence. Sometimes he’s a jerk, he’s not always right, and he can get a little carried away. Yet at the same time, there’s a sense of humanity that keeps him from fully being a jerk. As the film progresses, we get a little more of his story through Enoch’s eyes, learning more about him through little actions and few words. He is trying to give Enoch the opportunities that were denied to him in his past, like baseball glory.

There’s also Jack (James McDaniel), a black video store clerk who wants to start his own church in a community that’s…well, mostly-white. You would think, since he is a preacher, that he would fit the role that the Dennehy character could have had, and while he does have a few inspirational speeches, they’re not overly written or played unrealistically. This film is consistent in how it doesn’t always go for the easy way out, and that’s true of how Enoch slowly but surely reacts to some of Jack’s advice. Also among the supporting characters is Belle (Mare Winningham), Enoch’s resolving mother who is sick and tired of the feud going on between Enoch and Pop because of the way Pop treats him; she’s an understanding woman who knows when to step in. And last but not least, there’s Jessie (Mary Kay Place), in a brief role that says a lot, as Wheels’ hardworking mother who is still trying to make ends meet.

All of these characters are believable and fully-realized, and the dialogue they deliver seems very genuine. The credit for that, as well as for the ways the story is presented, has to go to the writer, Graham Gordy, and the director, Robert Milazzo. They have created a great portrait of relationships, ambitions, and small-town life, with authentic characters and situations to help present them. And a great deal of credit also has to go to the actors; there is not a single false note in any of the performances. This film probably has my favorite performance delivered by character actor Brian Dennehy, who creates a very credible “crusty-old-man” character with purposes and also regrets. I learn more about him each time I watch this film. Luke Grimes (not a stutterer) and Dan McCabe (not diagnosed with palsy) are absolutely perfect in their roles, and their friendship is very convincing, as if they really had been friends all their lives. Misti Traya is a three-dimensional dream girl, with her quirks and flaws that balance out her good looks and nice qualities. James McDaniel, Mary Kay Place, and Mare Winningham are solid as well.

There’s hardly anything more I need to know about Enoch, Wheels, Abby, Jack, Belle, and Jessie than what I know from this film (and it helps that there are ending texts explaining what happened to half of these people later on). But if there was ever a sequel to this film, I would definitely check it out, because I certainly wouldn’t mind spending another hour-and-a-half with these people. But because I’m sure that a sequel will never come about, I guess I’ll just have to stick with this film as is.

And I have. I’ve watched “War Eagle, Arkansas” a hundred times already and will continue to watch it a hundred more times in the future.

Jeepers Creepers II (2003)

3 Oct

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Smith’s Verdict: *

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

“Every 23rd spring, for 23 days, it gets to eat.” Yes, apparently, “Jeepers Creepers II,” the sequel to the modest horror-movie hit “Jeepers Creepers,” went with that angle that is just as ridiculous now as it was then. That’s apparently the main rule for a fiendish winged half-man/half-beast known as The Creeper. And I have to admit—it is a neat monster. It’s fast, dark, tall, ugly, vicious, and ruthless. And it doesn’t talk or wisecrack, so it only has a snarling personality.

But it’s a really bad move to make us root for the villain in a horror film just so we can say how intriguing the villain might be. “Jeepers Creepers II” has a nice monster, but it has it entrapped in a nothing story with extremely unlikable, annoying “heroes” that we just want to see die faster so that the movie will be over and we can move on with our lives. (And maybe the most dedicated fans of this movie, which I’m hoping are a very limited few, can make pieces of online fanfiction that is more interesting than what they had to watch to get started with.)

Yeah, “Jeepers Creepers II” is well-made (for the most part, anyway), but it’s boring, stupid as hell, and contains the dumbest, most unpleasant group of characters you’ll ever find in a horror film or a mindless action-adventure. Never before have I wanted a whole group of protagonists to die faster than they do in this movie. They’re that obnoxious.

The film starts out in a suitably unnerving way, as a young boy sets up scarecrows in the middle of a wheat field and then notices one that seems unfamiliar. He sees the claws, and then bam! It springs into action, grabbing the boy, and running off with it as his father and older brother give chase before it ultimately flies away. (Why it didn’t just fly away before is anyone’s guess.)

And then, we’re introduced to our heroes. No, it’s not Jack Taggart (Ray Wise), the farmer who was the dead boy’s father and now seeks vengeance in a mere subplot. Instead, we’re forced to follow a group of jackasses—a high-school football team on the bus ride home from a big game. The Creeper causes the bus to have a flat tire (by using one its…ninja-stars? What were those again?) and picks off the driver, coach, and assistant coach, leaving the team and a few cheerleaders to fend for themselves.

How stupid are these kids? Well, let’s do bullet-points for all the idiotic actions they perform.

  • Even though the Creeper is super strong and fast, and has even removed the head of one of their teammates, they still slowly look upward to see if it’s still out there.
  • It never occurs to them that they should stay low in that bus.
  • When they get out of the bus (yes, they get out of the bus), they do nothing but stand on the road until they see it coming. When they can’t get back in, what do they do?
  • They run out into an open field instead of hide under the bus!

And let’s not forget Scotty, the jackass homophobe who angrily takes charge and decides to split the group in two, seeing as how The Creeper only saw a few of them earlier, and thus those it hasn’t seen will live. One thing he forgets (that, by the way, someone does bring up but not soon enough) is that The Creeper saw him too, so that whole scene in which he tries to take charge, resulting in him making an even bigger jackass out of himself, was completely pointless.

It’s pretty easy to hate Scotty, but there are others on that bus who are equally loathsome, including Scotty’s girlfriend who always says the wrong things; one kid who assumes another is gay (which is interesting, considering how many gay undertones there are in this movie); and there’s even a cheerleader who is actually psychic so she can explain the motivations of The Creeper. I haven’t mentioned any names of the actors playing the kids; I’ll cut them a break. What I won’t cut a break, however, is the screenwriter for writing so much atrocious dialogue that forces us to listen to these “heroes” go on and on and never shut up. I’d much rather see what Jack Taggart has to do with anything, but he’s unfortunately a supporting character who’s able to show up for a somewhat-kickass climax, in which he packs a quite lethal weapon: a post-puncher turned spear-thrower. Why not follow this guy instead? Anybody but these detestable jerks!

You get the point—“Jeepers Creepers II” is a horror film with not much of a story and no one to identify or sympathize with. I guess the idea of characters being trapped on a bus by a vicious villain that won’t stop is kind of intriguing, but when you have to spend an hour and a half with people you don’t like, and just wish they would get it sooner, it takes the fun out of everything it could have had going for it.

P.S. By the way, why is this thing called The Creeper when it does everything else aside from “creep,” like fly, stare, and…lick the glass on one of the bus windows? (What?)